Scott McNealy steps down from CEO role but stays busy
Social Media Marketing

Scott McNealy steps down from CEO role but stays busy

Ten years ago, Scott McNealy stepped down from the CEO dais at Sun Microsystems. Earlier this month, the legendary Silicon Valley entrepreneur, controversialist and quote machine did the same thing, moving desks to become chairman of Wayin, a Denver-based social marketing company. This time the switch came as Wayin made a deal to merge with UK firm EngageSciences and ceding the chief executive’s steering wheel to EngageSciences CEO Richard Jones. But as we shall see he remains a lively interviewee with opinions on everything from digital marketing to the presidential race.

On the face of it, Sun and Wayin are very distinct beasts but when I speak to him by phone, McNealy insists there’s plenty of crossover too.

“It’s not different in that there’s lots of money being thrown at lots of ideas. Everyone wants to run a campaign: a persuasion campaign, an inspiration campaign, a branding campaign or whatever it may be. Typically it’s been done in the old TV and print ad way and in the digital world you know what [prospects] are and who they are instead of guessing where they are… it’s really hard to engage with a billboard at 70 miles per hour.”

It might be the bright, shiny new world of social but McNealy feels that Wayin and peers are standing on the shoulders of giants including the old “four horsemen” of the New Economy. That was the name once given to Sun, Cisco, EMC and Oracle as the quartet of technology infrastructure giants that laid the pipes, installed the gears, generated the power and built the crankshafts that allowed the web to prosper.

And the prizes are equally glittering. Sun became the “dot in the dotcom” with its servers, revived the workstations sector, put Java on the map and was one of Microsoft’s most persistent irritants. With Wayin the chance is to take a big bite out of marketing budgets that still predominantly go to old media, helping CIOs and CMOs to get to the people in a way that isn’t “cluttery” or “spammy”, McNealy says.

By pooling resources with Engage McNealy is optimistic that in a shrinking, consolidating sector where firms like Mass Relevance and Wildfire have already sought out partners, Wayin can be one of the big winners with real-time insight, content and interactive marketing tools plus a global footprint, a large Rolodex of contacts and management chops.

Another point of comparison: McNealy used to talk about “Frankenstein datacentres” that might contain some combination of Dell, Sun, EMC and other equipment. His answer at Sun was to put “all the wood behind one arrowhead” with a streamlined, highly integrated approach. Here again in social marketing there’s an opportunity to take a fragmented business and pull together the stands.

Digital versus analogue

A characteristic McNealy tic is to bring in his beloved kids when reaching for a metaphor or illustration for his argument.

“People are spending more time in front of a digital screen than TV worldwide,” he says. “I look at my four boys and the only time they watch TV is to watch a hockey game - and even then it’s a recording so they don’t have to watch the ads. I have never seen them pick up a magazine.”

So with all this upside and gravy (yet another McNealy favourite phrase) occasioned by the digital marketing revolution, why is he letting go of the leadership role just a year after taking it up?

“It was pretty sweet,” he says of the job he’s relinquishing, but “the hard part was living in California and commuting to Denver.”

When he quit as Sun CEO it was with the express intent to spend more time with his boys. Being CEO is “a young man’s game”, he says, and he laments that he’s now only fit for working ‘just’ 60 hours per week rather than the 80 of old.

The good news, he says, is that the boys are all doing fine and they at least got the chance to watch him strut his stuff in business, making speeches, talking shop and lapsing into his “1000-yard stare” when business matters popped into his head over the family dinner table.

Will he do anything different this time as he makes the short walk from CEO to chairman? McNealy says that whereas at Sun he didn’t attend a staff meeting after exiting the hot seat, under new CEO Jones he is likely to be used a little more aggressively.

Jones doesn’t demur when I put this to him on a separate call, stressing the need for CIOs and CMOs to work together. And who better than Scott McNealy to talk to IT?

“Once you’ve got through the nerves and the legend he couldn’t have been nicer,” Jones says over a transatlantic phone line, having just relocated to Denver.

“The CIO has been completely cut out of the loop of marketing technology but the IS department needs to be deeply involved. There’s too much involved.”


Top Trump?

In both senses of the word McNealy doesn’t seem the retiring type and when I ask him about what lies in his future, mentioning the odd case of Ethernet pioneer Bob Metcalfe considering a new career as standup comedian, McNealy switches to the political mode that will be familiar to Scott-watchers.

“I think the world needs capitalists,” he says. “It blows me away that the country has a group of young people that thinks it makes sense to elect a socialist as a president.”

And he’s off, railing against Bernie Sanders, “tenured professors” and the others that have “no appreciation for capitalism, the free market economy or personal and economic freedoms.”

“I’m going to be a huge supporter of capitalism just for my children,” he says. “I have seen socialist countries and I have seen capitalist countries and let me tell you, capitalism is way better. When I grew up socialism was considered a bad word now these kids are rabidly excited at Bernie and income redistribution and government-owned enterprise.”

So, I need to ask, is he a supporter of, er, the other guy?

“I always said that I think the world’s worst CEO is better than the world’s best politician,” he says.

It’s not the first time, even on this occasion, that we’ve segued into politics. At the top of the call traditionally set aside for pleasantries I remind McNealy that shortly after I’d spoken to him the last time he was to be found caddying for his eldest son Maverick in the US Open. The boy is a very fine young golfer but has not decided whether he wants to turn pro. I ask for his dad’s preference and there begins a long, funny diatribe (some off it off the record) on celebrities that happen to have a gift, beauty or whatever, versus those who create wealth off the back of their own labours. My hunch is that he’s a sports crazy man who is even crazier about business, albeit a person who still has the capacity to surprise.

It might be easy to paint Scott McNealy as some sort of laissez-faire relic of late 20th-centruty capitalism but he remains a strong opponent of monopolies and might, he says, be one of the few people on this earth that have actually read the Sherman Antitrust Act. And then as we close he’s keen to talk to me about another project close to his heart, Curricki, an open-source service that delivers educational materials freely all over the world.

Even if he no longer wants the nonstop travelling that goes with CEO territory he’s clearly staying busy with non-exec and advisory positions at organisations like Curricki and at identity management leader ForgeRock. There’s also the caddying to fill in any extra time of course and, even though Maverick is one of the world’s leading amateur golfers, McNealy says the younger siblings might turn out to be better players.

“I’m just living the dream,” he says. “There’s too much chocolate cake.”


Related reading:

Upset by America, Scott McNealy still rages

Bob Metcalfe’s unusual next move – standup comedian?


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Martin Veitch

Martin Veitch is Editorial Consultant for IDG Connect

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